Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Bill Archer

September 16, 2013

Good friends and Fancy Free ensured a smooth Telerama debut

— — I had no idea that the first WVVA-TV Telerama I appeared on would be my last. I appeared on a Sunday in February 1988. Jacqueline “Jackie” Oblinger and C.J. “Tiny” Thompson were the local co-hosts that year. I auditioned for Jackie in the cafeteria of Shott Hall on the Bluefield College campus. Students were sitting all around us as I sang a song to Jackie that I had written five days earlier. It was the “Pocahontas Mine” song.

By that time in my life, I knew Jackie well enough to think of her as a good friend. Since I didn’t grow up in this region, I didn’t know first-hand about Jackie’s incredible talk show, “A Woman’s Whirl.” As a result, I thought of her as a friend rather than the television star that she absolutely was and is. I was ignorant of her gender barrier-breaking television career, but I knew she was easy to talk with and that we shared a love for the community. She didn’t even know I sang until that Friday afternoon in the Shott Hall cafeteria.

I had explained to her that Nelson Walker, then chairman of the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, had appointed me to the chamber’s “Task Force on Tourism in Pocahontas,” and that I had written a song to promote interest in the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine that was closed at the time and had been closed since the Pocahontas Coalfields Centennial in 1983. She listened closely as I sang the song and took it all seriously. I remember thinking at the time that it would have been hard for me to take myself seriously.

She made one request. She asked me to tone down the negative image in one line of the song. The line was, “Continuous miners have taken work away,” and to me was a statement about mine mechanization. I changed it to, “They mined all the coal and they moved the mines away,” and she found that acceptable. She told me to come to the Summit Theatre at 7:30 a.m. and be ready to perform at 8 a.m.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night as I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I drove to the old municipal building and arrived at 7 a.m., with the thought that I would probably get the opportunity to rehearse with the band at least once before I sang. I knew Jackie and Tiny, Ray Brooks and O.C. Young, but I didn’t know anyone else there at the time. The show was live, so I couldn’t talk with the stars until the cut-aways to the national feed. The WHIS and later WVVA Teleramas were successful fundraisers for the March of Dimes.

Just before 8 a.m. Tiny called out to me to go up on stage with the band. By that time, I was numb with anxiety and my feet carried me up the steps, leaving my heart and soul stuck deeply in my throat that was still on the floor. Keith Pennington broke the ice by asking me what song I planned to sing, and I told him it was a song I had just written a week earlier. He asked me to sing a verse and the chorus, so I did.

With no more rehearsal than that, Keith turned to the rest of the Fancy Free Band members, called out the meter, tempo and key I was going to sing in just as though we had performed with each other for years. A few seconds later, I heard Tiny Thompson announce my name, and without hesitation, Fancy Free played a few bars of the melody on my song, and I turned to the microphone and started singing.

I was on WTRF-TV in Wheeling for my fifth birthday in 1954, and was getting paid to sing Elvis songs at Grange Halls in 1957. Locally, I had appeared as a guest on WVVA’s “In Focus” program a couple of times, but I had never experienced anything like my appearance on the Telerama. The only thing that really seemed odd to me at the time was the cameraman who was kneeling down in front of the stage getting unique angles on me and the Fancy Free Band.

Although my heart was racing, I remembered Jackie’s recommendation about changing the line, and I edited it without missing a beat. When I came near the end of the song, I put up two fingers behind my back, indicating that I would repeat the chorus, and the band knew what I was indicating. I was absolutely amazed by their level of professionalism. I was ready to melt on camera, but somehow it all came to be.

I was singing for an audience of one. My wife-to-be was watching on a 19-inch black and white TV and saw me overcome my fear to walk up on stage and sing a song that had never been performed with music before. When I asked her what it was like on television, she said she couldn’t believe it. That made two of us. I couldn’t believe it either.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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